Albert Nolan Essays 1
Report from Biodiversity Walk
with Birdhill Tidy Towns March 2017.
Albert Nolan was invited by Birdhill Tidy towns to do a biodiversity walk through the railway garden and along the Pollagh trail. This habitat is rich in wildlife and the local community are looking at developing nature trails that will highlight the different species and best practices around conservation.
Railway station garden.
Pied wagtail. Cheeky little black and white bird with a long wagging tail. Feeds on insects during the summer and on seeds for the rest of the year. We saw one foraging in the car park and they are very common in urban habitats.
Food for the mind and wildlife. Our walk started in the secluded surrounds of Birdhill railway station garden. Ivy is one of the best climbers for wildlife. The flowers come out in late summer, and are a source of late nectar for bees, butterflies and moths. The hard black berries ripen in early spring. They are an important source of energy for birds just as they are getting ready for the breeding season. The dense tangle of branches are also excellent cover for nesting birds.
We found three birds in the garden and all are associated with ivy. Woodpigeons and Blackbirds will eat the berries while Wrens will nest in the tangle of branches.
Natural connections. This connection between plant, fruit and bird as the basis of a natural food chain is important to highlight.
Nature awakens. The first bulbs were emerging and we were delighted to find snowdrops. The fresh leaves of the poppy were unharmed despite the layer of ice in the bird bath.
Overhead we heard a Jackdaw and these birds build their nests in unguarded chimney pots. When the meadows in the Pollagh are cut large flocks of Jackdaws and Rooks will forage for worms and grubs in the dug up ground.
Who really owns the garden? A robin was perched on the sign and he scolded us with a harsh warning call. Both the male and female Robin are highly territorial and will defend their patch throughout the whole year. To a robin we are the intruders in his territory.
To our ears, bird song is beautiful but it also contains hidden messages that only other birds can understand. It conveys the health of the singer, his status, where are the boundaries of his territory and hopefully attracts a mate. Next time you hear a bird singing, try and work out what message he is trying to communicate.
Mini beasts. We lifted a stone and found a slug underneath. These creatures are not well liked, but they are nature’s decomposers, and this is an essential free service that keeps our environment healthy. Slugs eat plant material, and return all the nutrients and minerals back into the soil, where they are available for other plants to use.
Beer trap. If you have a problem with slugs, try using beer traps instead of slug pellets. When the slug eats the pellet he does not die straight away. He is easy prey for hedgehogs and birds and the poison builds up in their systems.
To make an ecological friendly trap, wash out a butter container. Fill with stale beer or sugary watery. Place a few small sticks so that beetles that are great hunters of slugs can climb out. Leave by your plants and empty every few days.
Tiniest creatures are important. We found the tiny track of a moth on the leaf of a bramble. This micro moth lives inside the leaf, where it can feed and get protection from predators.
Shaded habitat. On the shaded side of the gate where the ground is wet and receives little sunlight Hartstongue and common fern are growing. This is a nice little micro habitat and deserves to be highlighted.
Children’s game. Cleavers or itchy back is well known by children. The whole plant is sticky and it is great fun to throw the plant onto the back of an unsuspecting person. This is also an example of how plants use people and animals to get their seeds transported to new locations.
The wild dog rose is growing in the undergrowth. We found one ripe berry called a hip. It is high in vitamin C. Children were once sent out to gather the hips when fresh fruit was in short supply.
Moment of reflection. When we reached the trail we closed our eyes and took a minute to listen to the sounds of nature. This is probably one of the few quite times that we get during our busy and noisy days.
Budding artist. One of the young girls on the walk had brought along her sketch pad. She was hoping to sketch a robin and I hoped we would find one on the walk.
Complex life. One of the walkers found a marble gall growing on the Oak tree. This is a fascinating life story. In the autumn a tiny wasp lays an egg on the oak bud. When this starts to develop it does not grow into a leaf but a hard marble shaped structure. The wasp larva is safe from the weather and predators. When it is fully grown, it drills a hole and emerges to restart a new life. When we broke it open we found a tiny soft wasp larva inside.
Food for bees. Vetch is a common roadside flower that scrambles up through the hedge. Bees love its purple flowers and the tiny peas in hard black shells are perfectly edible.
Animal information panel. We paused to look at the creatures on the panel and dispel some of the myths.
Many householders now feed foxes and they have become very common around houses and in urban areas. It is worth remembering that they are not domesticated like dogs and should be admired at a distance. Foxes feed on small rodents like rats and mice and help keep their population is under control. One man has even donated three of his chickens from his garden to feed a fox.
Bats are extremely important creatures. Each night they eat hundreds of flies and this helps keep their population under control. Many people still believe that that bats fly into your hair. The reason they swoop down over your head is that they are catching the insects that are attracted by your body heat. Years ago an old lady told me that this myth was put out to stop young couple taking long romantic strolls.
We saw a Wren flying into the hedgerow. This bird often takes the title of Ireland’s smallest bird but the real winner is the Goldcrest.
Community in a tree. The large oak tree, growing by the paths, supports hundreds of species of insects. These trees can live for a thousand years and an old rhyme describes their lifecycle.
- 300 years a growing,
- 300 years maturing,
- 300 years dyeing.
Exploring the underworld. The kids on the walks had great fun throwing stones into the stream. There is so much life that we don’t see that lives in the stream and on the river bed. Encourage the parents and kids to dip a jam jar or container into the water, leave it sit for a minute and see what wildlife they find.
Unfortunately compost has been dumped in the stream and this source of pollution should be removed.
Food for caterpillars. Broad leaved dock is a brilliant larval food plant. The caterpillars of several moth species and the beautiful small copper butterfly feed on the leaves. Also the emerald green potbellied beetle live on the leaves of the dock and lay clusters of orange eggs on the underside.
From the age we can crawl, we can recognise docks as a relieving cure for the painful nettle sting. Nettles are also an excellent larval food plant for several species of butterfly.
Traditional crafts. A big willow tree straddles the path and is a least a 100 years old. This is pension age for willow trees. The pliable Willow branches are used for the making of baskets.
Home for insects. Willow is one of the best trees for insects and supports over 200 species.
The appreciated named Willowherb has masses of pink flowers and also grows in wet places. The soft downy seed heads are used by birds to line their nests.
Birds of the Pollagh.
Rooks are regular visitors to the Pollagh to forage for grubs and worms. They don’t nest here but in the trees around Birdhill village.
We heard several Robins singing and each of these birds is establishing a breeding territory.
The Dunnock is a shy species that stays close to the bases of hedges and bramble patches.
The stream by the path is also a nursery for fish and eels. They stay here till they are big enough to survive in the mighty Shannon.
Importance of wet meadows. The flower rich meadows are the true gems of the pollagh trail. This type of habitat is now very rare as most are drained and planted up with forestry. Because the ground is we,t the meadows are cut late in the summer. This allows birds to raise their chicks in the long grass and for flowers to set seeds.
Skylark. This iconic bird of meadows flies high into the air and hovers while it sings. Two pairs nest in the pollagh each summer and this species is becoming increasingly scarce.
Grasshoppers. The chirping of grasshoppers is still a common sound along the Pollagh trail.
Cuckoo flowers grow in damp grassland and they are the food plant for the caterpillars of the orange tip butterfly.
I have often seen hares along the trail and they will rest in the long grass.
All these flowers support insects and these in turn are eaten by birds. This natural food chain and connections between the different creatures is important to highlight.
One of the best ways to get to know the creatures of the meadows is to find a quite spot in the middle of the meadow. Sit down to get level with the flowers and wait. After a few minutes the meadow will start to move, slither and bite with countless legs and mouths.
Man-made fence. The man made fence along by the path is a barrier for creatures like, hedgehogs, hares, and rabbits. A few gaps could be created to allow creatures to get through. A brilliant suggestion from one of the walkers is to use a four inch pipe in your
garden boundary wall for safe access for hedgehogs.
Benefits on mental health. The role of natural places like the pollagh in helping our mental health is another positive benefit. Fresh air, access to green spaces and contact with wildlife is a major part of our overall health.
The Pollagh is a place of wonder and curiosity for young and old.
The sun had been shining all week and nature was on full display as we pulled into the Pollagh trail. The last time we were here we were kitted out in coats and hats and the children had to be carried across flooded roads and dykes. Today t-shirts were the order off the day and with a liberal coating of sun cream we began our walk.
The first part of this amazing walk is bordered by woodland. This provides a home for many species of birds and the trees were alive with bird song. As we strolled along we heard three male Blackcaps singing and these are summer visitors from Africa. They are very sulking and sing from deep cover. The male has a lovely black cap on his head while the females cap is brown. They feed on insects and in late summer head back to North Africa. Over the last decade a few birds have started to overwinter and if the mild winters continue there numbers will only increase. If you feed the birds in your garden you will often see a pair of Blackcaps.
Two Robins were also singing and these birds are very territorial. They defend their patch throughout the year and fierce fights break out between the rival males. Robins also have a sharp tic tic warning call and this is used when the birds feel they are in danger or a predator like a fox is on the prowl. A Blackbird gives a warning call and these are another woodland species. They forage in the nearby fields for worms and slugs.
Another summer visitor is the chiffchaff. It has a distinctive call and it sounds exactly like its name. It also keeps to deep cover and there are several pairs along the Pollagh during the breeding season.
Dandelions are in flower by the edge off the path. They have many uses and can be made into an herbal tea or heady wine. When houses were damp and cold and rheumatism was more common dandelion beer was drunk during the winter to alleviate the symptoms of this painful condition. Their flowers are very important for wildlife and we find a green veined white feeding on one. Dandelion flowers are large and flat and this makes it very easy for insects to access the nectar. Green veined white butterflies are very common along the flower rich borders and in the wet meadows of the Pollagh.
We pause to listen and hear the melodious song off the willow warbler. Like the blackcap and chiffchaff is arrives in spring and leaves in autumn. Its song is soft and beautiful and it rarely leaves the shade of its preferred trees.
The male Orange tip butterfly is very easy to identify as he has bright orange patches on his wings. They are active and strong flyers and like linear habitats like hedgerows and woodland rides. Their caterpillars feed on the cuckoo flower and this grows in damp areas. It has pale pink flowers and gets its name as it flowers at the same time as the arrival of the cuckoo.
We turn left and head deeper into the Pollagh. Along the paths there is plenty of willow growing. This is a great plant for queen bumblebees as it flowers early in the year and provides them with a rich source of nectar as they emerge from hibernation and start the busy process of setting up a new colony. Daises or days eyes are scattered along the path. They are also used by early insects
The white flowers of the Blackthorn are dotted along the hedge. Later in the year there should be a good crop of sloes. These are eaten by birds, foxes and badgers. A chaffinch is calling from a tree. The males have a slate blue head, a pinkish breast and thick white wing bars. They are also known as the wet wet bird as there call is suppose to be an indication of rain.
As we pass the wildflower meadows we hear two wrens singing. Birds use song to mark out their territory and warn other males to keep out. It is also a signal to females that the male is in good condition and has established a territory that can support a family.
Gorse is in flower in the fields and an old saying states that when gorse is in flower kissing is in fashion. Fortunately for all young lovers, gorse flowers throughout the year. Birds nest in gorse as its spines provide effective protection form predators. Another yellow flower is the primrose and we find only one clump on the entire walk. Primroses have a dark eye in the middle of their flowers and this helps bumblebees to find them.
Creeping thistles are just starting to appear and later in the year its seeds will be eaten by goldfinches. A lone Dunnock starts singing and they are another shy and retiring species.
We also hear another three blackbirds, Willow warbler x 5, chaffinch x 1 and spot a male orange tip. This shows the rich diversity of wildlife along this short stretch.
We climb over the metal steps and this short section brings you nicely across to the other path. Groundsel is flower and it can be found at any time off the year. Cuckoo flower is in bloom in the wet meadows and it is the food plant off the caterpillars of the orange tip butterflie.
Stonechats were badly hit by the very cold winter of 2012 and are slowly making a comeback. They like rough ground and the Pollagh is an ideal habitat for them. Their song is unique and sounds like two stones by banged together.
We stop under the shade of a tree to eat our picnic. A pair of skylarks is singing and they have become very scarce due to the loss of flower rich grasslands and early cutting.
They use the fence posts in the field as singing posts and as we listen one off the males flies high into the air. He hangs there for a few seconds while singing before descending to the ground.
A loud splash from the drainage ditch by the edge of the path catches our attention. These are usually full of water and connected to the stream. The weather has been so dry that they have nearly dried out and as we peer into a receding pool we spot a trapped eel. Another possibility is that these dykes are used as nurseries for baby eels. Blackbird and Robin singing.
We reach the last track and head towards the car. This section of the trail is bordered by open fields and it has fewer birds. We only hear chaffinch x 3 and blackbird x 2 singing.
We meet two ladies walking and they inform me that they heard the cuckoo singing a few days ago.
Along by the ditch Bush vetch is in flower. These are one off the best flowers for bumblebees and butterflies. They have the ability to climb and they scramble by strong tendrils up through the vegetation. Silverweed with its silvery leaves stays low and hugs the hard surface off the road.
The last surprise of our visit is a small tortoiseshell butterfly. They over winter as adults in our houses and are usually the first butterflies to emerge each year. Their caterpillars feed on the leaves of nettle
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Main Species List.
Blackcap x 3.
Robin x 1.
Blackbird x 4.
Chiffchaff x 1.
Willow warbler x 5.
Chaffinch x 2.
Wren x 2.
Dunnock x 1.
Skylark x 2.
Green veined white x 1.
Orange tip butterfly, Male x 4.
Small tortoiseshell x 1.
The songs of the evening birds echoed throughout the trees and the hazy heat off the day was thankfully fading. My journey from Limerick was quicker than expected and with time to spare I drove up to the Pollagh to see what wildlife was around. Meeting new people is one of my favourite pastimes and soon I was chatting to a local man who cycles to the trail most evenings for his evening walk. The call of the cuckoo to the state of Limerick hurling was eagerly discussed and all too soon I had to leave to meet my group.
Soon i was standing in the car park of Birdhill Railway Station with an enthusiast group of locals are we were getting ready to explore the wonderful wildlife of The Pollagh Trail. Four young girls commandeered my net and after rounding up a few late comers we headed up on our walk. The station is only a short distance from the nature trail and after a few minuets we arrived at our destination.
At this time of the year the walk is full of bird song and flowers and the hard part is deciding what not to talk about. The first plant we looked at was Cow parsley and its flowers turn our roadside verges white during the months of May and June.
It is also known as Queens Anne’s Lace as the delicate flowers reminded people of lace that was only fit for royalty. All of the flowers on the trail attract many species of insects and their predators. Nature keeps its ecological book balanced and no species is allowed to get to dominant.
Under the shade of the trees we find Harts tongue fern. This plant gets its unusual name because it reminded people of a male stag with its tongue hanging out after been chased by the hunt. A Chiffchaff is calling from deep cover. This is a summer visitor from Africa and its song is a distinctive Chiff Chaff call.
Buttercups add a splash of colour along the edge off the paths. When we were younger we used to hold the flowers under our friends chin and if their skin turned yellow they loved butter. We pause for a minuet to listen to the unique song of a Song thrush. It is a very forgetful bird and repeats most phrases and notes three times. The song is often written as
“I love you, I love you, I love you,
Take me home, take me home, take me home,
No I won’t, No I won’t, No I wont.
The song thrush feeds on snails and he uses a special stone called an anvil to break open their hard shells. These soon become littered with discarded shells, and even after all his work the bigger blackbird will sometimes wait and rob the snail.
Another plant associated with love is the speedwell. It has pretty blue flowers and is also called the Forget me not. The story goes that a knight was walking along a river with his lady when he fell in the water. As he was swept away he shouted “forget me not”.
I am handed a plant and I cannot remember the name of it. That is part of the appeal of Nature as the learning and experience never really ends. A pair of serious walkers with arms marching by their sides flashes by our strolling group.
We take our first turn and just above our heads a Male Chaffinch is singing. The male is brightly coloured and the female is dull. She has to sit on the eggs to brood them and if she was brightly coloured predators would easily spot her.
On some of the roadside flowers we find Cuckoo spit. Traditionally people used to believe that the cuckoo spat on the plants as it appeared at the same time as the birds. I gently scrap away the froth and the girls are amazed to find a tiny yellow insect inside. This is a froghopper nymph and is an aphid like the ones in our garden. He secretes the whitish froth around him to protect his small body from harsh weather and as it tastes bad it keeps birds from eating him.
The budding naturalists are fascinated and they head off to find their own froghoppers. They also sweep the vegetation and find all sorts of interesting insects including a black weevil. A Male cock pheasant is calling from the meadow. The purple flowers of Bush vetch are scrambling up through the plants. It is a member of the pea family and is an excellent flower for bumblebees. Late in the summer it will have seed pods with little hard black peas.
Two more summer visitors are singing in the trees. The Willow warbler comes in from Africa and is found in gardens and habitats with plenty of tree cover. It has a soft melodious song and never comes to bird tables or garden feeders.
Up to ten years ago the Blackcap was a summer visitor but now many birds pass the winters in our gardens and take advantage off our generosity with seeds and nuts. Males have a black cap while the females cap is brown. A Hawthorn tree is in flower and it is also called the May blossom. It is late this year and is probably due to the very cold weather.
Red clover is another brilliant flower for insects and we find some growing by the path. Another attractive feature of the trail is the succession of wildflowers. Insects like bumblebees need a constant supply of nectar rich plants throughput the year. As one species fades another is opening to take its place.
Scattered on the path we find the catkins of sally or kitten willow. The catkins are very soft and look and feels like tiny kittens. We gently stroke them and almost expect them to meow.
Nettles are much maligned plants but in the right place are very beneficial for wildlife and people. Many of our butterflies and moths lay their eggs on the leaves of nettle. When they hatch the caterpillar closes a leaf around itself using a sticky web. Inside he is safe to develop as grazing animals won’t eat his home and birds won’t try and eat him. After a number of painful stings I find a caterpillar in a rolled up leaf. Also a gall on a nettle leaf that makes the shape of a caterpillar. This is caused by a fungus called Nettle rust and when its spores are released it completes its lifecycle on sedges.
We reach the half way point and scramble over the metal steps. The meadows here are very wet and have a unique range of flowers. Ragged robin is one the more interesting and its pale red flowers contrast sharply with the tall yellow flowers of the flag iris.
A pair of Stonechats is calling from a tree and they have a distinctive “clack clack call. This sounds like to stones been hit together and it carries throughout the trail. Stonechats have suffered badly during the serve winters but their numbers appear to be on the way back up. They nest in gorse bushes in rough ground.
We did not hear the Cuckoo on our walk but I am assured he is well and safe in the meadows. Cuckoos are disappearing from the wider countryside and this is due to the changing nature of farming. When the fields are cut too early the meadow pipits have no time to build their nests in the long grass. Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of Meadow pipits so we have to start by leaving wide margins around the edge off fields for nesting pipits. The wet land in the Pollagh prevents early cutting and this benefits birds and wildflowers. Unfortunately the character of the meadows is changing due to tree planting, drainage and improvement off the grassland. As we look out only a narrow wet strip of wildflowers remain. Olds mans beard is growing on the branches off a tree. This is lichen and is a sign of very clean air.
The drainage ditch along side the path is connected to the local river. I have seen small eels in the ditch and they are probably used as a nursery for developing eels. Sphagnum moss is growing in a damp patch and this acts like a sponge. It takes water in and slowly releases it helping to control flooding.
We reach the last path and begin our journey back to the car. Field maple with creamy white flowers is growing in the shade of the hedge. We manage to catch a bee and it is the Common Carder Bee. It buzzes loudly and as the group gathers round I explain how to tell the difference between a male and female bee. A few of the adults have worried faces but let out a sigh of relief when I explain only the female gathers the pollen so has pollen sacks on her legs. The males only appear in autumn and their only function is the mate with the new queens.
A Chiffchaff is singing loudly and is joined by a Sedge warbler. These birds are also summer visitors from Africa and nest in the brambles along the edge of the paths.
We find a large caterpillar on the path and he is very hairy. Cuckoos are able to eat hairy caterpillars and this is another vital adaptation. Black medic is growing along the grassy middle of the road and a reed bunting is singing from deep within a field.
Our last stop is by an elderberry bush. Its white flowers can be used to make a refreshing drink and is fruits a delicious wine. The leaves are also a natural insect repellent and when I crush some of the leaves they smell is quite pungent.
We arrive safely back at the car and a welcome cup off tea finishes off a very enjoyable evening.
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Mid summer’s eve marks a change in the countryside as the nights start to slowly creep in and fruits, seeds and berries start to ripen in preparation for the frosty days of Autumn. Many of our wildflowers are in bloom and on a good day the grassy verges can be full of insects.
We set off on our walk and the summer migrants are still along the trail and we heard the familiar songs of the Blackcap and Chiffchaff singing. Meadow sweet is in full flower and it has a beautiful fragrance. It was once gathered and brought into houses to help freshen up the air and help mask unpleasant smells.
The Mountain Ash is a native tree and it is a long way from its natural home in the hills. But it grows just as well under the shade of the tall trees. Traditionally it was associated with the “little folk” and it was considered very unlucky to damage any part of the tree. Bright red berries are produced in Autumn and these attract hungry birds. Silver Birch has beautiful bark and this provides colour during the winter months.
Once the cow parsley has finished turning our hedgerows white another member of its family takes over. Common hogweed has started to flower and its showy white flowers are a magnet for insects. Cuckoo spit is everywhere and it never seems to dry up or get washed away. The froghopper that lives inside probably renews it on a daily basis.
Overhead we hear a swallow singing and I don’t see them that often hunting over the insect-rich meadows. Perhaps it is the lack of suitable nest sites that prevents them making their homes in the Pollagh.
The kids don’t want to go the usual route and for a change we go straight on rather than turning. Greater Willow Herb stands as tall as a man and in a few weeks will have bright pink flowers. The caterpillars of the pink ‘Elephant hawk moth’ also feed on this plant.
Another fantastic plant for moths is honeysuckle as it releases its scent at night and we find it climbing through the roadside hedge.
If you are into flowers this is the time of year to be out and about. During the summer months many gardeners throw open their doors and invite the public in to admire their work. Nature too, crafts its own garden and this is free from any man-made limitations.
As we walk along we spot the yellow flowers of meadow vetchling. This can also climb and it has little tendrils that wrap around grasses and other flowers. Creeping thistle and common valerian are tall plants with sturdy stems and have no need for climbing aids. If you pause to examine their flowers you will find a whole host of interesting bugs that come to feed on the nectar. Bring a large sheet of paper or a towel and place underneath the plant. Gently shake and all of the mini beasts will fall and will stand out against the white background.
Our first butterfly of the day is a Ringlet and this is a very common butterfly of damp meadows. It even flies on wet days and is a uniformly brown colour. On its wings it has a beautiful pattern of rings and the caterpillars feed on various grasses during the night.
Adults sip nectar from the flowers of bramble and thankfully there is no shortage of this plant along the trail.
Bright colours attract butterflies and bumblebees and purple loosestrife has long spikes of mauve flowers and a delicious scent. It is often sown as part of a wildflower meadow in gardens. Spear thistle also has deep purple flowers but is not welcome by many gardeners. This is unfortunate as its flowers are brilliant for butterflies and its seeds are eaten by song birds.
High in the trees a woodpigeon is calling. They are unusual among birds in that they feed their young on milk that is more nutritious than humans or cows. Because they are not dependent on seasonal food they can have several broods during the year and sometimes they have chicks in the nest as late as October.
While the birds are interesting, the flowers really steal the show today. Cow parsley and dandelion are in seed and these will provide seeds for birds. The fluffy seed heads of the Dandelion are called clocks and children used to use them to tell the time. Each breath represented one hour and when all the seeds were gone you would know the time.
Broad leaved plantain is common by field gates as it needs low grass to grow in and can survive a certain amount of trampling. Lesser stichworth has white flowers on scrambling stems and any plant with worth at the end of its name was once a powerful medicinal herb. ‘Cat’s Ear’ is a close relative of the dandelion and it has single yellow flowers on tall stems. It gets its unusual name from small little bracts on the stem that look like cat’s ears.
Elderberry is in flower and I have seen a few adverts in the papers from people who are looking for elderberry flowers and will pay by the kilogram. We count five more Ringlets and also see a different species – the Meadow Brown. They are big brown butterflies with orange patches on their wings. They also have a prominent black false eye that stands out against the orange patches.
Hidden behind a field hedge, I hear a rook calling. Once the meadows are cut, the rooks arrive to search for soil grubs and help keep the pests under control by cleaning up the fields.
The wild dog rose grows in a few places along the trail and their flowers are very delicate and blow away with the slightest touch. Its fruit is called a rose hip and they are very high in vitamin C. During the war years, children were sent out to gather up the berries as fresh fruit was in short supply. They were also dried and sent over to Africa but I am not sure if this practice continues today.
Knapweed flowers are not open yet and they are also called hardheads. I am starting to learn about grasses and find lots of Cocks- foot grass growing on the banks. It is supposed to look like the foot of a cock but no matter what way I hold it I can’t see the resemblance.
We sweep the flowers and grasses with the net and it reveals a hidden world. The net is full of tiny bugs and leafhoppers. They have very strong hind legs and when you place them on your finger they leap into the air.
A harsh guttural call draws our attention to the skies. A Raven is flying nearby and these are powerfully built birds. They are rare over the Pollagh and in recent years have continued to spread throughout Tipperary. Meadow pipits are displaying over a field and as we watched one flew high into the air and slowly descended to the ground while constantly singing. We also hear a Wren and Goldfinch singing and see a male Blackbird.
We pause by a colourful display of wildflowers and find several interesting insects. A small tortoiseshell butterfly is resting in the middle of the road. They pass the winter as adults and are often found in our homes. They can often be found feeding on the flowers of creeping thistle.
In the net we find a beautiful Green Orb Spider. The kids call it the apple spider as its body is apple shaped and bright green. We catch a hoverfly called Syrphis Ribesis and these are excellent predators. They can catch dozens of insects each day and are more agile that a modern military jet.
A ragged Green Veined White is caught in the net and they are easily identifiable by the dark veins on their wings. This one is probably a month old and this is a pensionable age for butterflies. Narrow leaved willow herb grows in damper areas and has delicate pink flowers.
We reach the crossing point and a Reed Bunting is singing from a tree. They are common along the trail and nest in low trees, shrubs and reeds. Some of the fence posts are covered in colourful lichens but I don’t know what species they are and the learning never really ends.
A narrow wildflower edge has been left uncut by the edge off the path and it contains a huge range of colourful flowers. Purple loosestrife, common valerian, meadow sweet and cat’s ear grow in nature’s garden.
The meadow is equally as rich and cat’s ear, creeping buttercup, narrow leaved willow herb, Common valerian, Anglicia, Spear thistle, Red and white clover and the large seed pods of flag iris are growing among the grasses. This diversity of flowers is rarely seen in the countryside anymore. But this is a dying natural treasure as the meadows are being drained and planted with trees. Also many of the edges of the paths have been sprayed and I find this very strange management for a wildlife habitat. I have noticed gradual erosion of the biodiversity since I first came here many years ago but we will continue to enjoy the amazing nature and try and record some of its wildlife in words for future generations.
We reach the last track and catch three caterpillars of the Peacock butterfly in the net. They are all black with spikes and a sprinkle of white dots. Lucy says they have sticky feet that cling to your hand. They look fully grown and the next time we are back we should find adult Peacocks.
Flying in the tall grasses we find a blue Damselfly. They are delicate insects and I think it was a common blue. Most of their lives are spent as an underwater larva and they are ferocious predators. After two years they crawl up along waterside vegetation and transform into a stunning adult that might only survive for a few precious days or weeks.
Angelica and knapweed are in flower in this part of the trail and I find several moths. The Straw Dot is mainly yellow with a black dot on each wing. It is a small moth with a triangular shaped body. Flame Carpets as their name suggests have an orange band that resembles a flame across their wings. The Clouded Border is as light as a cloud and is white with a dark brown border. Latticed Heaths are not that common and are found in areas of tall grasses.
My team of naturalists is getting tired and we start to potter back to the car. A skylark is singing in the meadow and they need the late cutting of the grass in order to successfully raise their chicks. Also another Wren singing in a field hedgerow.
Yellow Rattle is a semi parasitic plant of the roots of grasses and is a sign of very old grassland. The seeds’ pods when full ripened are hollow inside and if you shake the flower the seeds rattle around inside.
When the kids rest for a few moments on a welcome seat, I get up close to some creeping thistle flowers. These are a magnet for insects but danger lurks in the Garden of Eden. Clever spiders build their webs on the thistle and they have a continuous supply of insects.
Solider beetles are orange with a black tip to their bodies. They are abundant on the flowers of common hogweed and are in their characteristic position of love making.
More butterflies flit by and we count Ringlets x 9, a small tortoiseshell and a Meadow Brown. A chaffinch is calling from a field hedge and in a freshly cut meadow there are ten rooks foraging for soil grubs. We find our first Common Figworth plant of the walk and I think this is the only place it grows along the trail.
Our last stop is to explore a field that has been cut. The sweet smell off the meadow lingers in the air. Three field drains run through the meadow and a narrow strip of tall flowers and grasses have been left. This contains a small plant called Marsh bedstraw. It has tiny star shaped flowers that are white. Along the hedgerow Snowberry and Hawthorn are growing. Snowberry has bright white berries in winter and they are called Billy Busters by kids. If you squeeze them the juices squirt out over your intended victim.
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The sun was shining and we were in the middle of a mini heatwave as we pulled into the Pollagh trail. All though we have been here many times before and in all weathers, the lure of the walk is as strong as ever. Each visit brings fresh discoveries and a new understanding around how all the plants, insects and birds work together in perfect harmony. The varied landscape also creates a rich mosaic of hedgerows, wild field edges and the vital ingredient for life, an abundance of water.
A new house is being built and a rough stone road gives access to the house. Few plants can grow in such harsh conditions but Broad leaved Plantain is very tough and can survive being trampled on. We head off into the trail and pass by the flowers of Herb Robert. Common hogweed has produced a bumper crop of seeds and there is a rich leaf litter underneath the Beech tree. The twigs of the ash tree are heavy with their fruits called keys and even the strong breeze causes only a slight rustling.
Underneath the tall trees there is the shrub layer. Elderberries are perfectly happy in the shade but will not have the biggest crop of berries. Willows have found their own niche and grow in the wetter parts of the walk. Their roots filter the water and remove impurities and toxins, cleaning the water in the process. They are brilliant for insects and we find lots of spiders and their webs hung between the branches. There are a few oak trees growing by the entrance but these are only around 30 years old. On the underside of some of the leaves there are little raised red circles called spangle galls. These are created by a gall wasp called Neuroterus quercusbaccarum. Some of the leaves of the wytch elm have been eaten and the culprit is more than likely a caterpillar of one of the many species of moth that feed on its leaves.
We take the trail to the right and find Purple loosestrife and Angelica in flower. These are two of the best flowers for insects and this gives us hints as to what we can grow in our gardens. If you have an area that has wet soil these two flowers are ideal and will attract in butterflies. The tufted vetch is finished flowering and gone to seed. Spindle is a rare tree and is found in a few locations along the trail. Its timber was once used to make spindles for weaving and in the autumn it bears bright orange berries. These are fine for birds but toxic for humans.
The farming year is gaining pace and the meadows of the Pollagh are being cut. Thankfully the last meter by the ditches is too wet for the heavy machines and is left uncut for nature. A wren starts to sing from a hedge and they are resident here all year round. Dandelions were scarce this year and there is only one in flower along the whole walk.
A speckled wood is perched on a bramble leaf. They sip the nectar of the flowers and will drink the juices of the berries when they ripen. Two broods are common and in a very good year there are sometimes three. Along by the tall grasses a meadow brown is flying. With the meadows cut it has been forced out into these linear fields.
A moth breaks cover and flies rapidly away. We follow and it drops like a stone into the grass. After a few minutes of careful searching I spot a shaded broad bar. This has a thick brown bar across its wings and their caterpillars feed on various grasses and legumes like bush/tufted vetch. Another wren breaks into song and the creeping thistles are releasing their fluffy seeds. We hear a jackdaw calling in the distance.
Bumblebees are out enjoying the sunshine and the common carder bee (Bombus pascurum) is feeding in a bindweed flower. A robin is singing but stays in deep cover and we cannot see him. A spider has built his web with a large funnel at the back. He scurries deep into his tunnel as we approach. Wasps’ duties of rearing the larva are nearly over and they search the countryside looking for anything sweet to quench their sugar thirst. Sow thistle, Red dead nettle, Knapweed, Red and white clover are in flower. Willow warbler is singing and we find a common leaf hopper on a leaf.
We reach the metal steps and head across to the next trail. Angelica and purple loosestrife are in flower and have attracted a whole host of bees. While the kids eat their treat I do a bit of bee watching and discover four different species. Bombus pascurum x 5, Bombus terrestris x 1, Bombus lucorum x 1 and Bombus pratorum x 1. With bees in decline throughout much of the country the flowers of the pollagh are becoming more important. Robin gives a warning call as we linger too long.
In a recently cut field there are 70 Jackdaws and Rooks feeding. They are searching for soil grubs and especially leatherjackets. These are the larva of the daddy long legs and they live in the soil for up to two years. They eat the roots of grasses and crops and can cause a lot of problems if left unchecked. Birds provide a free pest-removable service. Swallow is flying and feeding on insects. By the entrance to the field we find the Greater knapweed.
We jump over the gate and start back towards the car. The beautiful scent of meadow sweet lingers in the air and a willow warbler and robin are singing. A Meadow pipit is calling from the field and we see three more swallows. The dog rose is in flower and two buff tailed bumblebee are on the flowers.
We find more butterflies. A meadow brown x 2 and two green veined whites. The biggest surprise is the first small copper butterfly we have ever seen on the trail. It is feeding on a creeping thistle flower and they are very approachable. We pause and have a good look and humbly realize that all though we have discovered so much we have barely scratched the surface.
Albert Nolan Essays 2
The kids race ahead giving me little time to pause and examine the flowers. Sow thistle, Narrow Leaved Willow Herb and Greater Rose Bay Willow Herb are finishing up and their white feathery seeds are waiting for a gentle breeze to carry them to a new location.
Wasps are starting to come to the end of their lives and with the main work done in the hive they spread on and search for sugary treats. If nectar is still available they will feed on this and I find one feeding on the flowers of Figworth.
Fresh Nettle line the sides of the path and the leaves can be made into a beer. You can also make an affective natural insecticide from this plant. Soak the leaves in a bucket for a few weeks and strain through an old towel or cloth to remove the pulp. Dilute the resulting liquid 10:1 in water and spray onto plants to control pests like greenfly. The plants also get a boost from the minerals and nutrients contained in the nettle feed.
The wind rustles in the leaves and this is a real sound of late summer as the leaves start to dry out. The Beech trees have lost most of their leaves and the Hawthorns are turning a vivid red. This year is excellent for berries and I have never seen as many haws on the Hawthorn trees.
We take the first left and stop at the Spindle tree. On the underside of a leaf we find a small Spider. Some of these leaves will remain on the trees throughout the winter in sheltered places providing valuable cover for insects. Nearby on an Oak leaf we examine the track left by a Fly that lives inside the leaf. You can follow the short course of its life as it tunnelled through the leaf. When fully grown it emerges into the world and you can see the tiny hole in the leaf where it existed. Purple Sloes cover the Blackthorn trees and these are used to make slow gin.
The first bird of the day puts in an appearance. A male Blackbird flies across the path shrieking loudly. They love to eat fruit and all the berries on the trees and shrubs will be gratefully gobbled up by these birds. The mild weather has extended the flowering season of many species of flowers. Meadow Vetchling, Ragworth, Angelica and Purple Loosestrife create a colourful backdrop to the faded greens of the fields.
A colourful and unusual insect on Angelica catches my attention. Its shape tells me that it is an Ichneumon Fly and later I discover its delightful name of Diplazon Laetator. It has a long ovipositor (a long structure like a hypodermic needle) that it uses to lay its eggs in wasps. The larva hatch inside their host and eat the unfortunate insect from the inside out.
The Holly tree has no berries yet and a male and female is needed to produce fruit. Birds like Blackbirds are also very fond of them so you have to keep a careful watch on your tree if you want any for decorations. A Robin gives a harsh warning call and I wonder if he has laid claim to this tree already.
Water Mint is growing by the edge of the stream and when we crush it between our fingers it releases its pungent minty scent. Our hands still smell of mint long after we have left the nature trail.
The kids have great fun gingerly picking up tufts of the Creeping Thistle seeds and throwing them into the air for the wind to catch. Later on the game is reversed as we pick out small thorns from sore little fingers. Thistles are excellent for insects and we find loads of small flies on the flowers. Bright red Rose Hips are scrambling up through the trees and brambles. If you squeeze one you will find that they are full of tiny seeds. An Amber Snail is resting under a leaf and it can often be found near riverside vegetation.
Meadow Buttercup, Yarrow, White Clover, Yarrow, Common Valerian, Narrow Leaved Plantain, Greater Knapweed, Red Bartsia, Tufted Vetch and Shepherd’s Purse line the edges of the path and display their colourful flowers. These attract a host of insects including three Speckled Woods, Leaf Hoppers and a Hoverfly.
Being low down has its advantages and the kids are great at spotting Spiders. They find a big Garden Spider on a web spun between thistles. As we near the crossing point we hear a Wren singing and a Great Tit calling. The white flowers of Bindweed are hanging like white bells and announcing the imminent arrival of autumn. By a field gate Pineapple Mayweed is growing. When you walk on the plant its releases a pineapple scent.
We scamper over the metal steps and onto the narrow path that connects the two main trails of the pollagh. Pond insects are skimming along on the surface tension of the water. This is a thin crust on top of the water and the insects open their legs wide to spread their weight evenly. I ask the kids not to throw in stones because if the surface tension is broken the insects could drown. Groundsel is growing along the edge of the path and it is one of the few flowers that can grow in the harsh and changing environment of the gravel.
The kids find a Seven Spotted Ladybird and tell me that each of its spots represents one year. I have found this is a widespread belief among school children. Most of the wildflowers have gone to seed and these will soon be eaten by hungry birds. Rooks and Jackdaws are feeding in a field and I count 70. This is a very consistent number as the last time I was here I got the same amount. Three Starlings and a Meadow Pipit are also in the field. Purple Loosestrife still has a few flowers and two common Carder Bees are searching for nectar.
We reach the last trail and head for the car. Greater Bird’s Foot Trefoil is growing in the grassy bank. The kids pause to watch a Speckled Wood Butterfly and a Crane Fly and in this rare moment of peace I hear the sound of flowing water. A Swallow flies overhead but I have never seem them in big numbers in the Pollagh.
On a Bramble patch by a field gate we spy a Common Wasp and two Speckled Wood Butterflies. A low call catches my attention and two Bullfinches fly out from a Sally tree and into a Hawthorn tree. They are beautiful birds but are disliked by some gardeners as they eat a few buds from fruit trees.
As we near the car we see three very wary Grey Hooded Crows. They flew away as we approach. In towns and well used public areas they have become very tame and show little fear of man. This shows how our interaction with nature can change their behaviour and probably happens over the course of a few generations. The trail throws up one more new surprise. A small Yew tree is growing under the shade of a tall tree. The Yew can live for a thousand years but the tall Sycamore only around 150 years. Youth and vigour are on the side of the sycamore but the Yew has longevity and will ultimately win out in this battle through time. We reach the car to the song of a singing Robin. As we drive towards the playground I realize that the kids will be back to school shortly and our visits to the Pollagh will be a weekend affair.
Slí na Cuaiche: The ‘Red Loop’ on the Pollagh Trail
The kids have settled back into school but the fine weather has continued. On a sultry Sunday afternoon we arrived at the Pollagh Trail. A Robin was singing in a tree above the car and these are one of the few birds whose song can be heard throughout the autumn and winter months.
The kids find an unusual acorn on the path under the Oak tree. It is all wrinkly and is called a Knopper Gall. It is caused by a parasitic wasp that lays its egg in the developing bud. This causes the bud to swell up and this larva is free to develop inside safe from hungry predators.
The Beech buds have stretched and they are long and orange. There are loads of crushed Beech nuts underneath the tree and I hear a chaffinch calling nearby. These birds feed on the beech mast and an old name for them is Beechfinch.
Two more Robins are singing and as we listen they move closer together. This is the start of the phoney war where they assess each other’s strengths by their songs. Fighting uses a lot of valuable energy that is hard to replace during the winter so the birds are generally happy to call to each other across the road.
The flowering season is coming to an end and there are a few faded blossoms on the Bramble, Thistles and the Yarrow. Rose Hips, Blackberries and Sloes hang from the branches and as the autumn deepens they will be eaten by hungry birds. The black seed pods of Tufted Vetch have twisted as they dried out and the seeds are hidden in the grass and waiting for the spring to germinate.
A sleek shape flashes across the path and I see a Kestrel disappearing over a hedgerow. They generally appear over the Pollagh at this time of the year to feed on the large flocks of Finches that come to feed on the various seeds from the grasses and flowers. Two Rooks are also flying and we hear another Robin singing and a Blackbird and Wren giving a warning call.
A few Dandelions are struggling to grow in the grassy margin in the middle of the road. It is also known as ” Jack go to bed at noon” because it opens its flowers early in the morning, around half an hour after the sunlight hitting it and closes them again as the sun moves away through the midday sky. Meadow Vetchling and Ragworth are also in flower and the Harts Tongue Fern has conspicuous lines of brown seeds. They grow on the underside of the leaf but when they are ripe the leaf twists so that they can be carried away by the wind.
Birds are plentiful today and we hear a Dunnock’s singing in the field hedgerow. Three Jackdaws are also feeding in a meadow and a Grey Hooded Crow is flying overhead. Two Robins are singing very close together and a Meadow Pipit is calling from the field. I hear a Bullfinch calling from a Sally tree. They are more of an autumn visitor to the Pollagh when the juicy buds are on the trees.
Despite the lateness of the season there are still plenty of insects about. We see two species of butterflies a Small Tortoiseshell and a Speckled Wood. As we walk along we disturb Crane Flies or Daddy Long Legs. They have a weak flight and only travel a few feet before dropping to the ground.
We reach the crossing point and scramble over the metal steps. Bales of silage have been stacked near the gate and the kids have great fun jumping from one to the other. I find a fishy smelling pellet on top of the bales and pop it in a jar for later examination. Growing in a small hole in the bales there is a small mushroom. I have not seen it before and it goes in the bag for a later date. Yellow Groundsel flowers dot the path and a Dunnock and Wren are calling. As we near the path I see a Dragonfly sunning itself on the path. It is small and a ruddy colour but the kids have scared him away before I can make a positive identification.
The Broad Leaved Plantain has very tall flowers and Narrow Leaved Willow Herb is also in flower. We decide to take a longer path and follow the Slí Na Cuaiche walk. The kids have been doing the same walk for a few years and are strong enough for a bigger challenge.
As we follow the path to the river I see a Rook trying to mob a Kestrel. The Kestrel is gliding and easily avoids the clumsy attacks of the Rook. Just at the right moment he flicks right or left and suddenly he is above or below the hapless bird. The rook realises he is outclassed and starts calling loudly. After a few moments reinforcements start to arrive and the clever Kestrel knows the game is up and heads for the hills.
Kestrels are mainly autumn visitors to the Pollagh and come to hunt the large flocks of Finches that feed on the abundant seeds along the trail. Shepherd’s Purse is growing by the edge of the path and it has distinctive heart shaped seed pods. The field we are walking through has been planted with trees and this will completely change the character of the Pollagh in a few short years.
We follow the path and it turns sharply to follow the high bank of the Shannon. The fields are full of Rushes and some Red Clover that leads onto mature woodland. Alder and Oak have been planted at its edge and if left to mature they will become an important habitat for wildlife. Thistles are starting to encroach on the walk and it feels like a long time since anyone explored this part.
A multi stemmed Alder is growing on its own and it was probably browsed by animals when it was very young. Alder seeds are eaten by Redpolls and hopefully over the winter I will see them on our walks. Sally trees are normally around 10 feet tall but we pass a grove that is at least 30 feet and they are some of the biggest I have ever seen. The woods and the bank act as a sun and heat trap and we find a Red Admiral Butterfly. This is a migrant species and reaches us in large numbers in late summer.
A series of metal steps have been erected for safely crossing over wire and we stand at the top and try to see over the high bank but to no avail. Thistles are in flower and attracting plenty of insects. A Small Tortoiseshell, Common Carder Bumblebee and two Speckled Woods have all come to feed. We hear a Rook calling nearby.
We cross over a jumpy metal bridge and I hang on tightly to the kids as the water looks deep. We turn left and follow the bank of a wide stream. The local cows have been in drinking and have caused a lot of damage to the delicate bank. Water Mint and Water Speedwell are growing in the muddy edge. Gorse is growing on the opposite bank and a Wren gives a loud warning call.
We ducked under a wire and found out the hard way that it was live. We head off along a long muddy path. The meadows are grazed by horses but still have plenty of flowers growing in them. Angelica, Meadow Vetchling and Birds Foot Trefoil are still in flower. There is a small pond with the sign for deep water but thankfully it is well fenced in. This would be a magnet for dragonflies and I will check it out come next summer.
I hear two Robins giving a warning call and the reason soon becomes apparent as a magnificent Raven flies overhead. It gives a deep guttural call and is probably resident in the nearby Clare hills. As he disappears a Robin starts to sing from a tall Ash tree.
The path sweeps around beneath a Beech tree and the adjacent field is been grazed by sheep. They call mournfully as we pass. Soon we are gasping for air and the walk climbs sharply between two high banks. There is an old stone wall on the face of the bank and Hawthorn, Ivy, Dog Rose, Bracken and Brambles full of Blackberries are growing on top. We see a Speckled Wood resting on a warm stone and hear one Robin singing. We reach a quite country road and the fabulous view of the mighty Shannon makes the kids forget how tired they are.
There is a narrow grassy path in the middle of the road and I haven’t see a road like this for many years. A Magpie is calling and Starlings are singing from an ESB wire. Herb Robert, Polypody Fern, Yarrow and Blackberries are growing alongside the road.
We reach the main road and I tell the kids that the car is only around the next turn. The promise of a trip to the shop revives them and we push on along the last stretch. Ragworth is in flower and we see three Rooks feeding in a field.
A Great Tit is singing as he passes from tree to tree and they feed on spiders and insects that they find on the branches. Snowberry has bright white fruits called Billy Busters. This is an escapee from gardens and is quite invasive. The birds don’t eat the berries and it supresses all the native flowers by its tightly packed stems and leaves.
The last treat is a tall line of Elm trees. They are over 50 feet high and Dutch Elm disease doesn’t seem to be a problem here. After another few minutes we reach the car and there are no protests from my weary troops. Another interesting walk has been revealed to us today and we look forward to learning more about the wildlife that lives along this part of the trail.
October has dawned bright and warm and this is a beautiful time of the year to get out, go for a walk and see what nature is up to. We returned to the Pollagh Trail on a quiet Sunday afternoon to get some gentle exercise before the rigours of the working and school week rolls in with the early morning alarm clock.
A Wren was singing as we started our walk and these brave little birds are resident here throughout the year. During cold winters their numbers can plummet but they are prolific breeders and quickly bounce back. Pied Wagtails are more birds of the urban environment and can often be spotted on our city streets. Today there is one on the walk but he hasn’t ventured past the unfinished house.
We search through the piles of leaves and find several Oak seedlings. Some of these are never going to survive in their current locations so we gently gather a few to plant in a safer place. Birds are still quite active and a Robin is singing and we also hear a Chaffinch and Rook calling. Signs of fresh growth are littered along the trail and the leaves of Cow Parsley are well advanced.
A commotion above the trees causes us to look up and we see Rooks and Jackdaws mobbing a Kestrel. Although this is a common falcon it never fails to excite me when I see one. We take the first turn and find Meadow Sweet still in flower. The Holly tree has produced a fine crop of berries but the birds will probably devour them before they are fully ripe to be used as decorations.
Redwings are calling in a field and these are regular visitors from Scandinavia during the winter months. They feed on soil grubs and on the berries on the trees. Another Robin breaks into song and is joined by a Wren. But the calls of the Redwing bring a welcomed variety to the bird song of the trail.
Grass grows in a narrow strip along the middle of some of the paths. Throughout the year this contains an interesting collection of hardy plants and flowers that provide nectar and pollen for insects. Dandelion is in flower at the moment and its deep tap root allows it to survive on the harsh surface of the path. Field puddles are starting to appear and the land will soon become waterlogged. A Dunnock is calling from a field hedgerow and we also hear the warning call of a Robin.
The Alder trees have plenty of seeds and these will attract flocks of Finches when they start to open. Underneath we discover a Mushroom with a big dinner-plate sized cap but despite several searches through the books and websites I cannot positively identify it. The white flowers of Yarrow are still fresh and we must be too near a Wren as he gives a sharp warning call. A small troop of Long Tailed Ttits x 3 passes overhead and in brambles by the entrance to a field a wren is singing. Pineapple Mayweed, Sow Thistle and Groundsel are all in flower and these hardy plants can survive in poor soils. They grow quickly and produce hundreds of seeds ensuring that some will go on to produce the next generation.
We reach the crossing point and a lone Meadow pipit flies up into the air. They look dull in flight but if you see one perched on a fence pole you will see that it has bright orange legs. The trees planted in the meadows are starting to mature and this has changed the nature of the Pollagh. Birds have moved in to the former grassland and we hear a Dunnock and wren calling. We pause at our picnic spot and while the kids eat I trace the path of tiny flies through Sally leaves. The Long Tailed Tits appear again and hang upside down from delicate branches as they forage for insects.
We reach the last track and potter on towards home. A large flock of 20 Rooks and Jackdaws are feeding in the field. The kids’ loud calls disturb a Meadow Pipit and two male Blackbirds that fly noisily into the nearby field hedgerow. We can hear the Redwings calling and count ten in a tall tree. A Wren joins in with a loud warning call and a Magpie flies across the path.
As we near the car we pause by a Bramble patch and find a few red Blackberries. These will struggle to ripen as the daylight hours are shorter and the sun has lost the vigour of summer. A Meadow Pipit takes flight and shimmers against the evening light while two Chaffinches are calling from the hedgerow.
Evening stroll reveals the wonder of Nature.
The weeks have flown and it is late in the evening when we arrive at the Pollagh. The sun is getting ready to set and birds are starting to head to their nighttime roosts. This involves a lot of noise and clamour and Blackbirds are the most vocal. We hear one bustling around in the undergrowth and he gets more agitated when a Robin and a Wren join in.
It is very foggy and it hangs just above the meadows. Birds appear briefly before being swallowed up by the white mists. I spot a Grey Hooded Crow in an Oak tree and a Robin sheltering in a hedge by the path.
The hedge has been cut but it could have been done in a more wildlife friendly manner. Another Robin appears on the path and there are ten Jackdaws in a small grove of Alder trees. The birds are sticking to the cover of the hedges and we hear the calls of two Wrens, a Robin and two Blackbirds coming from one.
The meadows are really soft and all the tracks from the tractors are now full of water. This muddy habitat has enticed in a pair of Pied Wagtails and they don’t seem to mind the mess as they gather up insects and seeds.
We stumble our way to the crossing point and the Clare Hills have disappeared. A Meadow Pipit, Robin and two Wrens are calling but we cannot see them through the thick fog. Our picnic is skipped today with very little protest and I find a male Reed Bunting perched on a tree. Sow Thistle is still in flower but the whole plant is very ragged.
The fog lifts a little as we reach the last stretch of the walk. Birds are very vocal here in the young tree plantation. Three shy Dunnocks are calling, three wrens and a two robin. I see a male Reed Bunting in Sally tree but I am not sure if it is the same bird I saw earlier. A Grey Hooded Crow is resting in a tall tree. They like to be up high as it gives them a clear view of the surrounding countryside and allows them to spot potential predators or prey.
The sunset is beautiful and we forget about our tired legs for a few minutes. The holly berries are fully ripe and just in time for the festive season. As we reach the car we hear a two Robins, a Dunnock, a Blackbird and a Magpie calling.
Winter starts to fade.
Winter has finally shown its teeth and a sharp frost has been resident in my garden for the last week. The weak sun only brushes against my soil at this time of the year and this is one of the few disadvantages of being situated at the end of a shaded valley. On the plus side the wooded slopes are home to many species of birds and these regularly come into my garden. The colder temperature has seen an increase in appetites both outdoors and indoors and with food supplies running low we headed out to stock up.
Once our shopping was done, the day started to brighten up. We were passing by Birdhill and popped in for a long overdue walk along the Pollagh Nature Trail. As we put on the walking gear the first thing that struck me was the silence. No bird was calling and this is normal for this time of year, as with no mate to attract, energy spent singing would be wasted. Also with few leaves on the trees, the wind lacked that rustling effect.
We headed off and the trees were barren as all their berries had been eaten by hungry birds. Also without their leaves, the woods were more open and enticing trails were calling us from the path. After a few minutes we heard our first bird as a Robin broke into song. Robins keep their territory throughout the year and this bird did not like our intrusion. Overhead a Great Tit passed silently through the branches and in the distance Rooks and Jackdaws were calling.
A few drops of rain started to fall and we could see the rain clouds rolling down from the Clare Hills. Undeterred, we pushed on and the lovely smell of baled silage was drifting onto the path. White mushrooms were growing out through small tears in the plastic. They are hard to the touch unlike their softer meadow cousins.
The breeze was very cold and most of the birds were sheltering in the field hedgerows. We saw two male Blackbirds and heard Robin x 2, Wrens and a Dunnock. On the open meadows of the Pollagh, hedgerows provide vital cover from the harsh winter weather keeping birds safe and warm. A troop of Long-Tailed Tits marches by. They are searching for any hidden spiders and their eggs. They keep up a low musical call and disappear into the distance. A pair of Grey Hooded Crows is feeding in a field and these alert birds are like the sentries of the walk. They are quick to spot any potential predator and their harsh call warns other birds that danger is about.
We reach the short crossing point that connects the two main arms of the trail. The field has been ploughed up by animals and two male blackbirds are foraging for worms. We have a walking picnic as it is too cold to stop but leave a few crumbs for a robin who hops onto the path to scold us.
The rain is getting heavier and we scramble over the gate and onto the last track home. This area has been planted with a mixture of fast and slow growing trees and young plantations are a rich habitat for birds. A Dunnock and Chaffinch are calling but they are outnumbered by four wrens.
A few flowers are braving the elements and we find Shepherds Purse, Yarrow and Dandelion in flower. A beautiful charm of 15 Goldfinches are feeding on the seeds of the Alder trees. Their catkins are well developed and a welcome sign of the awakening countryside. In the branches there are Besoms but these nest-like structures are caused by a fungus. As we near the car we hear another Dunnock and see two more Blackbirds. The birds and people have missed a few berries on the holly tree and a white lichen is wrapped like a scarf around the branches of thin stems of a blackthorn tree.
Nature rewards a visit even at this the darkest time of the year.
The month has flown and we arrive on the cusp of a new month and the welcome beginning of Spring. Snow has been falling and the day is bitterly cold with the wind adding a chilling icing. This is not a day for hanging around and I wonder how the creatures have fared on the open fields of the Pollagh.
We set off, wrapped up in several layers for extra protection. At least we can put on more clothes to keep us warm. Birds don’t have that luxury and need plenty of extra calories during the harsh weather. We can all help by feeding the birds in our garden and having hedges with a wide base where birds can shelter from the winds.
The birds have taken to the woodland to escape the cold and we hear a Robin and Wren singing and a Dunnock and Bluetit calling. Like our hedgerows this type of habitat is very important as it can be several degrees warmer among the trees than the surrounding countryside. A small flock of 15 Rooks and Jackdaws are feeding in a field and these ground feeding birds must have to work really hard when the ground becomes frozen solid. Fortunately, their intelligence helps and they visit the nearby field that has horses. Their hooves break up the ground exposing worms and grubs for hungry beaks.
We quickly walk on and hear the warning call of the Blackbird and see another male on the path. These birds are woodland-edge specialists and have the skills to survive the cold weather. Three males have gathered in a sunny corner of a field. The ground is softer there and they have a better chance of finding food. The males are very close together and not showing any aggressive behaviour. A Robin gives a warning call as the kids run by and we see one more male Blackbird in a field corner.
We reach the crossing point and along by the hedge that runs to the river we see another male Blackbird. The dykes and drains are full of water but this does not bother the Alder trees as they can thrive in waterlogged conditions. We decide to eat our picnic on the go rather than sit down in the cold.
We reach the last trail and find the yellow flowers of gorse in bloom. The snow returns and flickers down through the trees and carpets the trail. The ivy has black berries and these are an important source of food for birds. On our way back to the car we hear two more Robins singing and a Wren and Dunnock calling.
Nature still clings to the edges of the Pollagh and these hardy birds will have the pick of the best territories and feeding grounds as spring returns to the Pollagh.
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We arrive at the Pollagh to the backdrop of glorious sunshine. Memories of our last visit, when bitter winds followed us throughout our walk, are soon forgotten. A Wren greets us with its exuberant song and a Pied Wagtail is hanging around the gravel paths of the new house. Signs of the awakening countryside are everywhere as plants and birds respond to the increased length of the day.
Birds are defending their territories and they try and do this by singing and aggressive display. Fighting uses a lot of valuable energy and there is also the risk of a serious injury. Two Blackbirds are calling to each other across the path and this must form the boundary of their territory. A Robin is also singing and they can share the same patch as a Blackbird because the Robin builds its nest up high and the Blackbird will keep its home a few feet off the ground.
Plants too are on the move and the fresh leaves of cow parsley are peeking up through last year’s leaf litter. Above them the fluffy white catkins of the willow are just emerging. This is one off the best trees for wildlife. Bumblebees are attracted to the flowers and dozens of species of insect live and feed on the Willow. As I watch I see a pair of Great Tits carefully picking their way along the slender branches and eating the insects and their larva. Deep in the trees two more Robins are singing and I hear the mournful song of the Mistle Thrush. This is also known as the “storm cock” as it can be heard singing from a prominent perch even during strong winds and driving rain.
We walk on and see two more male Blackbirds. They are squaring off on the path and do not notice us till we are nearly on top of them. They temporarily forget their differences and fly off noisily. Birds have occupied the entire length of the field hedgerows. We hear two Wrens, a Dunnock, Robin and Blacking singing. Another pair of great tits are feeding in the roadside trees.
A small flock of birds are perched in a tree and through the binoculars I identify them as Meadow Pipits. They call noisily and disappear into a nearby field. One takes flight and flies high into the sky. He hangs there for a moment and parachutes down to the ground continuously singing. A Robin joins in with a song and a female Chaffinch is calling from a tree.
I am thrilled to find a pair of Stonechats. They were badly hit during the recent hard winters but the population is starting to bounce back. Their call sounds like two stones been banged together and they nest on rough ground and in young plantations.
We reach the crossing point and pause for our picnic. I am entranced by a displaying pair of Skylarks. They are balanced in the sky around 80 feet off the ground and 20 feet apart. Their wings are beating furiously as they try to maintain their positon and their song spreads out over the meadow. One bird falters and descends while the other hangs on for another few minutes. Skylarks need areas of tall grass and late cutting so that they have time to raise their family. The Pollagh is a stronghold of this species as the surrounding landscape is grazed intensively.
A Dunnock and Wren are singing in the developing woodland and three Meadow Pipits are following each other through the grass.
We reach the last track and listen to the songs of a Wren, Robin x 2, Goldcrests and Chaffinches. The last surprise is a pair of Reed Buntings perched on an Alder tree.
The diversity of the Pollagh is based on its wide range of habitats found in the one area. From grassland to field hedgerows, tall trees to the humblest dock each combination off plants provides food, shelter and opportunities for birds and countless insects.
Albert Nolan Essays 3
A Ramble through the Pollaghs, Community Park & Slí na Coille
The month of April is a fabulous time of the year for walking as the countryside is full of expectation and birdsong echoes from every tree and hedgerow. Insects are emerging in greater numbers and the roadside edges come alive with flowers. Many spring migrants have arrived in the Pollagh and we hear the Chiffchaff singing as we start our walk. Resident birds are also busy defending their territories and resident Blackbirds, Wrens and Robins are singing.
The house that is being built by the entrance has attracted its own wildlife. A lone Pied wagtail is foraging around the grounds and these are closely associated with urban dwellings. High in the trees we see a Great Tit and its strident ‘teacher teacher’ call is a reflection of its woodland habits. The high pitch carries through the trees allowing birds to communicate with each other and ward off other males from their nesting territories.
The yellow flowers of Lesser Celandine are still around in the damp and shady undergrowth. As we emerge into the light, insects come to life. A Buff-Tailed Bumblebee is busy gathering pollen and the different species of flowers in the Pollagh make ideal feeding grounds. Hoverflies dart away as our shadows pass over them and a Green-Veined White Butterfly is sipping nectar from a Dandelion flower. Another Chiffchaff is singing and there is always two pairs along the trail. I spot a female Chaffinch and she will be soon sitting on her eggs.
The field hedgerows bordering the Pollagh are an important habitat for birds. Birds use them for nesting, shelter and for food like berries, seeds and insects. I listen carefully and hear a Dunnock, Wren, Robin and Blackbird. Overhead a Rook is flying and perched on an ESB power line there is a pair of Reed Buntings. The males are striking birds with a black head and a thick white scarf around their necks. They have long toes and this helps them to make their nests and grip onto the reeds as they move about. They sing from a prominent perch like an ESB wire. The flowering willow tree has attracted a Honeybee and we find three beautiful Small Tortoiseshell Butterflies on the flowers along the walk.
We reach the crossing point and I hear one of my favourite birds of the spring. The male Skylarks are singing high above the meadow and this has to be one of the most glorious songs of the bird world. They hang in the sky for a few minutes before dropping down to the cover of the short grass. They need long grass that is not cut till late in the year in order to successful raise their family. A White- Tailed Bumblebee worker is searching through the Willow flowers.
We reach our picnic spot and a Wren puts on a show for us by singing loudly. We are probably too near to his nest, but he is upstaged by the surprise arrival of a Hare. I catch sight of him as he emerges from some long grass around twenty feet away. I hush the kids and point out the hare. They forget to be quiet and rush to the fence, calling excitedly. The Hare takes flight but I mark his progress for a while as he knocks down the short grass of the meadow. A fabulous encounter and one the kids won’t forget for a long time. A pair of Woodpigeons fly overhead.
We reach the last track to the songs of a Dunnocks, Song Thrush and singing of another spring migrant the Willow Warbler. Bees are thankfully plentiful and we see several more Buff-Tailed Bumblebees and one more Honeybee. The hedgerows are also full of birds and we hear a Blackbird and Wren x 5 singing. A Hoverfly is perched on a Willow flower and the Blackthorn is in flower. These emerge before the leaves, where as in the Hawthorn the leaves come out first. Underneath the young leaves of the creeping thistle are starting to grow.
As we drive back over the railway bridge we see a Male Orange-Tip Butterfly. We decide to visit the lovely garden that has been developed by the station. It has a nice balance of formal planting that leads into more natural areas. The trees around the garden are full of birds and we listen to a Robin, Great Tit, Woodpigeon and Wren singing. Four Rooks are flying overhead and they build their nests in the tall trees around the village.
We cross over and walk through the literary trail. Lesser Celandine carpets the floor of the woods and Honeysuckle binds up through the trees. There is a wide variety of tree from tall Horsechestnut and Oak to smaller Hawthorns. In a Scots Pine tree we find one rook nest but I think this will increase as the year marches on. We stumble out onto the main road and the verge of the roadside is dotted with colourful wildflowers. Dandelions, Bush vetch, Violet, Speedwell. Bramble, Cow parsley, Ivy, Common dock and Lords & Ladies make this a mini haven for insects.
We cross the road for a quick visit to the community park. This is an oasis for people and wildlife and what is more impressive is that it is situated by a very busy main road. You can tell how a community is faring by the diversity of its inhabitants. Under the trees, Wood Anemones are in flower and we hear a Blackbird, Great Tit wren and Wren singing. There is a small Rookery behind the pond and there are 5 nests in the Ash and 2 in the Scots pine. As we leave we hear a Dunnock singing and catch a Green Veined White Butterfly. As we reach the car, we hear our last bird of the day, a Chiffchaff, calling in the trees around the railway station.
Early morning or late in the evening are the ideal times to listen to the birds. As the day and seasons progress, birds become quieter and this is why May marks the national dawn chorus event. We arrive reasonably early for our walk and we stand by the car for a few minutes to take in the fabulous songs. A Robin, Wren, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Song Thrush and Dunnock are all performing.
People often feel a bit overawed when they set out to learn the different bird songs and especially when there are several singing together. It takes a while to tune in, but there are good identification CDs available from Birdwatch Ireland and get to know one species first and build up your ear slowly. I play mine in the car (ignoring the protesting kids) and this helps keep everything fresh.
White is the colour of the month and delicate Daises are in flower under the Hawthorn trees. This tree is also known as the May Tree and years ago people would dance around the May pole to welcome in the spring. The white umbels of Cow parsley are just starting to dominate and they will reach their full glory in the coming weeks. Learning birdsong is important at this time of the year as the trees and hedges are in full leaf and it can be very hard to see the birds. I hear a Willow Warbler and Robin singing and hear a Chaffinch calling. Overhead two rooks are flying.
Lately I have become fascinated by Galls. These are unusual growths that can occur on the leaves, flowers and stems of plants. The insect causes a localized increase in the growing plant hormone and this causes the swelling that we call a Gall. I find one on the upper surface of an Elm leaf and I think that it is Elm Finger Gall.
Beautiful wildflowers like Bush Vetch, Meadow Buttercup and Meadow Sweet are starting to flower by the sides of the path and these have attracted a Common Carder bumblebee that has come searching for nectar and pollen. On a patch of Nettles we find a tiny moth called a Nettle Tap Moth.
We pause by a field gate and hear a Wren and Chaffinch singing along the hedgerow. Ribwort Plantain is in flower and this is one of the few plants that can survive constant trampling. Nearby Gorse, Red Clover and Silver Weed are in flower.
Rooks/Jackdaws have young in the nest and are busy searching for food and we count thirty. We push on and in the grassy middle of the path we catch a Green Veined Butterfly. Butterflies have been scarce this year and hopefully it will pick up in the next few months.
We all have birds that complete our year and the Cuckoo is one of mine. I hear one singing in the distance and thankfully they are still common on the Pollagh trail. The way the meadows are managed benefit Cuckoos. The grass is not cut till late in the year and this allows Meadow Pipits to safely build their nests. These birds are the main host species for the Cuckoo and so long as we continue to cut the grass late, birds will continue to thrive.
More birds burst into song and we hear a Chaffinch, a male Blackbird giving a warning call, two Wrens singing and a summer migrant from Africa, a Whitethroat.
Cleavers or sticky back is scrambling throughout the vegetation and on a nettle leaf we find a tiny caterpillar. On a Bush vetch flower a Common Carder Bumblebee is feeding.
We reach our crossing point and above the meadows we are entertained by two displaying Meadow Pipits and a Skylark. Cuckoo flower is in flower and a male Blackbird crosses the path. A Willow Warbler is singing.
With tiny legs starting to tire, we head back towards the car. An Orange Tip Butterfly flies by. The male has bright orange patches on his wings and this makes it one of the easiest butterflies to identify.
A Reed Bunting, Wren and Blackbird are singing. Another Meadow pipit is displaying and we see a female Chaffinch on the path. I find an interesting plant on the path. It is called Pineapple mayweed and not only does it look like the fruit it also smells like one.
Deep in the woods I hear a Song Thrush singing. A pair of Swallows is flying and they come to the meadows to catch insects.
Pheasants like the tall grass of the Pollagh as they find deep cover. I hear one calling and also hear a Magpie, Blue Tit pair, Goldfinch and Chaffinch singing in a tree. A Rook is feeding and a Wren singing.
Broad leaved plantain, Common hogweed and Figworth are all in flower. Our walk ends with more insects. These are the natural glue that holds our environment together. We are all familiar with the bigger species but these tiny creatures are vital for the health of our environment. A Common Carder Bumblebee, Male and female Orange Tip and a Green Veined White butterfly complete another marvellous day discovering nature along the Pollagh trail.
I arrive at the Pollagh trail in beautiful sunshine and it is a strange feeling as I have no children with me today. They are busy at their summer camps and this gives me a few precious hours of freedom and I intend to make the most of every minute.
A Swallow is swooping low over the path and this year has been poor for insects as the weather has been cold and wet. Having habitats like the Pollagh with their wide range of wildflowers is very important for birds as they attract insects and produce seeds for them. These species-rich meadows have disappeared from most of the Irish landscape. Female Swallows will not reach breeding condition unless they have a regular supply of protein-rich insects. While they do not nest in the Pollagh, it is a vital feeding ground for them.
In the woods I can hear a Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Chiffchaff x 2, Robin and Wren singing. This is one of the last months to enjoy birdsong as once the breeding season is over they will not waste energy on singing and our walks become strangely silent. Red and White Clover has attracted a White-Tailed Bumblebee and these insects can travel up to 2km when searching for food. The males will be appearing soon and their brief existence involves mating with the new queens before they are expelled from the colony where they die from exposure and lack of food.
The Cow Parsley flowers have faded and their small black seeds are eaten by birds like Chaffinches. But as one flower completes its lifecycle, another comes into bloom to replace it. The white flowers of Brambles have opened and these are full of busy bees, hoverflies and other insects. This succession of flowers provides a stable supply of nectar and pollen throughout the summer and early autumn.
Along the base of the hedge, Figworth, Greater birdsfoot trefoil, Herb Robert, Common Hogweed are all in flower. Two of my favourite are also out the Foxglove and the Dog Rose. Despite its unfortunate name, the Dog Rose has beautiful pink/white flowers and they have a wonderful scent. It scrambles up through the hedges and trees and later in the year it will produce bright red Haws for birds and animals. The stately Foxglove can grow under the shade of trees and if caught out in a shower of rain a Bumblebee will seek shelter in one of its large flowers.
A Helicopter is flying overhead and while this might be a quick way to travel and gives you a fabulous view of the landscape, you miss the tiny details of nature. On the leaf of an Elm tree I find tiny red galls that have been caused by a wasp that lives inside the leaf. As I check under more leaves, I find tiny green eggs. These are laid by the Green Shield Bug and they are so well camouflaged that predators like birds would be hard pushed to find them.
The scents from the wildflowers is divine and especially from the white fluffy flowers of the Meadowsweet. Common Valerian has pink flowers and grows in the wetter parts of the walk. While it has interesting flowers they have no noticeable scent. In a field hedgerow, a Wren is singing and Hoverflies flit between the flowers.
The Elderberry has white flowers that have many different uses from refreshing cordials to delicious lemonade. They are still gathered and with the added interest in foraging for wild food, their use will hopefully increase. Marsh Thistles have weak spines and clusters of people flowers that have white flecks. Some of them are very tall and stretch over two meters above the Bush and Meadow Vetchling growing underneath. Flag Iris are just starting to bloom and they grow in shallow water by the edge of the stream.
Insects are plentiful today and in the shaded areas I find a Speckled Wood. Active and a strong flyer the Small Tortoiseshell darts away quickly while the Meadow Brown has a more languid flight over the tall grasses. The Nettle Tap Moth as it name suggests is found on nettles but they are quick and agile and hard to catch. A Black Lipped Snail is slowly making his way up a leaf no doubt looking for a tender bite.
Birds are also active and I hear a Chaffinch, Wren x 3, Reed bunting x 2, Sedge warbler, Blackcap, Robin and see six Rooks in a field. The middle of the path is a hard environment and only the tough Dandelion, Daisies, Broad Leaved Plantain, Black Medic and Pineapple Mayweed can survive the daily trampling. A Speckled Wood is flying around near a field gate that is bordered by a thick patch of brambles and nettles.
I pause to listen to the singing Skylark and I never tire of their beautiful song. I hope that the meadows will continue to be cut late well into the future but new plantations are been planted and I fear for the future of these natural treasures. An unusual call above the meadow catches my attention. It sounds like Chuck Chuck and as I look up I am just in time to see s displaying Snipe fly overhead. Among the Creeping Thistles, a Stonechat is calling and this species suffered terribly during the very hard winters but is now slowly returning to its former haunts. In the trees a Willow Warbler is singing and a male Pheasant pops up out of the grass for a few seconds. Meadow Pipit and Blackbird calling. Swallow flying and Wren singing.
On the stems of thistles I find colonies of black aphids. They must get some protection while living on this plant but not from Ladybirds. I find an adult Seven Spot Ladybird and its well-fed larva on a clean stem and they are searching for more aphids. It is only a matter of time before they discover them on the next plant. I find a tiny fly with the most extraordinary cobalt blue body. On a leaf a pair of 22 spot ladybirds are mating and I count 15 Rooks/Jackdaws in a field.
I reach the crossing point and hop the fence into the uncut meadow. Beautiful wildflowers burst up through the swaying grasses. Meadowsweet, Creeping buttercup, Common valerian, Groundsel and Marsh bedstraw. A Buff Tailed Bumblebee is gathering nectar while a Meadow Brown and Speckled Wood are disturbed by my feet. My feet leave large tracks in the meadow and it will take several days for them to disappear. Other flowers are rarer like the Meadow Thistle and the Lesser Spearworth that is a member of the buttercup family. But the real surprise is a Spring Squill with blue flowers and I have never come across it before.
I spot a Common Blue Damselfly and its bright blue colours draw me deeper into the meadow. I catch one in my bug jar and marvel at its beauty before setting it free. I am conscious of the nesting birds and when a pair off Skylarks start to harass me I start back towards the path. On the way I find a beautiful Common Spotted Orchid and all these flowers are a sign of a very old meadow. The day is hot so I sit in the grass for a few moments and take it the gentle sights and sounds of nature. A Grey Heron passes overhead on his way to feed in the river.
As I emerge onto the path I meet a lady out walking. We chat idly for a few minutes and she parts with the delightful comment that Butterflies are her angels. The ground is very dry this year and perhaps all the trees that have been planted and drains dug are taking their toll on this fragile environment.
I reach the last track and in the woods I hear a Song Thrush, Blackcap and Wren x 2 singing. By the side of the path I find Yellow Rattle and this is the only place on the walk where it grows. It is semi parasitic and lives on the roots of grasses and other plants. If you pick the seed pods when they are ripe and shake them they sound like a child’s rattle. More insects appear and I find a Specked Wood, Scorpion fly. Carder Bumblebee Queen and Worker and a Ringlet.
As I walk along I hear birds singing. A Magpie is calling from a tree and a Wren and Whitethroat are singing. The most interesting bird is a Grasshopper Warbler. Its sings from deep cover and its song sounds like an old fashioned fishing reel been slowly wound. The noise carries along the walk and can continue for hours and even into the summer’s night.
I touch the leaves of Marsh Woundworth but its leaves have an unpleasant texture. A small group of three Bluetits are hunting through the trees and I hear a Dunnock singing and the alarm call of the Blackbird. Ringlet butterflies are plentiful and I count eight during the walk.
As I return to the car I realize that I did not hear the singing of the grasshopper so far this year. I will return on a warm and sunny day and hopefully their songs will be echoing throughout the meadows.
As I step out of the car, an icy wind blows along the Pollagh Trail. I am glad of the extra layers, and especially a new fleece that is quickly becoming my favourite gift. I can hear Jackdaws calling, and like them, movement is the best way to keep warm.
Everything is cold and damp, and initially there is no sound of life. Sometimes patience is needed and nature will eventually discover you. A man passes by on his bicycle, and his dog is attached by a lead to the back of the bike. This is a novel way to exercise your pet.
A Rook calling in the distance finally breaks the silence, and is quickly followed by the alarm calls of a blackbird. These birds are common along the walk, in the woodlands, and open fields where they forage for worms. Small trees that fell during the storms have been left to decay naturally, and both living and dead wood are needed to create a healthy woodland. Many more trees bear darkening scars, where a wind-knocked branch has been removed.
The gentle calls of the blue tit alerts me to its presence. It is methodically moving through a low hedge. From branch to branch its thin beak probes for spiders, insects and other larva.
The stream that borders the path is flooded after the torrential night’s rain. Wrens remain along the pollagh throughout the winter, and I hear one calling from a field hedgerow. Elder trees stand bare and barren in the hedge, as all their berries have been stripped by hungry birds.
I find the metal skeleton of an old field gate. It has become part of the hedgerow but the craftsmanship is still evident. Compared to modern gates that are now universal in style, design would have differed from parish to parish, based on the creativity of the local blacksmith.
Nearby, a large oak tree is covered in ivy and berries. This tree will be visited by countless birds in the coming months as they prepare for the breeding season. A robin hops underneath a gate, pauses for a second to view this two-legged intruder, and disappears into the hedge.
The land is flooded in parts and the dykes filled with dark water. This suits the Hartstongue Fern and they thrive along the pollagh. The banks beneath the hedgerow are showing signs of life. Fresh leaves of cow parsley already have a few inches of growth, and broad leaved dock appears unaffected by the frost. The hollow stems of tall Angelica are still standing, and they make a natural and snug bug hotel for insects.
Willow hedges are common here, as the wet soil suits this species, whereas Hawthorn prefers a dryer soil for its roots. The spring catkins will provide nectar and pollen for pollinators like bees.
Horses can be beneficial for birds, as they churn up the soil creating an inland mud flat. I see a pied wagtail, five blackbirds and a meadow pipit feeding in the muddy grass.
The walk opens out into open fields with only a wire fence for scant protection. The icy wind blowing from the hills finds its way through my defences, and I keep my fingers and toes moving.
Nature always has a surprise and i see a raven flying. Not only is he uttering his normal guttural calls he is making a sound like a seaside wader. They do have a wide range of calls but this is a new one for me.
I hear another meadow pipit, robin and three wrens and a see a male blackbird on the path. He hops into a tree and waits till I get close, before flying into an alder tree. I reach the end of the path to the smell of silage and the sound of plastic flapping in the wind.
New gates have been erected making for easy access to the track that joins the two main paths. This part of the pollagh has been unfortunately planted over the last several years, and the diverse wildflower meadows replaced by conifer trees. Some natives like alder have been planted in front of the forestry, and these help to dry up the ground. Blackbirds are not fussy, and I hear one calling from deep withinthe woods.
I pause to peer into the deep pools of water as they often contain eels but there is no sign today. One of the fence posts has been coated in lichens and this is a sign of clean air.
A bird appears on one of the posts holding up the wire fence. I quickly focus in my binoculars and I am delighted to see a stonechat. They like rough weedy grounds and have a short flicking tail. Overal,l he is a faded orange/brown colour with a faint white neck mark. This is a young male and his plumage will become more pronounced as the breeding season approaches. Not to be outdone, a robin appears and does a little bobbing dance.
The birds were singing and enjoying the very mild start to 2019. Eager to stretch our legs we headed to the Pollagh Nature Trail. This safe and nature-packed walk is located beside the beautiful village of Birdhill, and I have been walking here with the kids for the last ten years.
There is room by the entrance for a few cars or you can park in the railway station. The first part of the walk is bordered by mature broadleaf and conifer woodland. The latter is being slowly harvested and hopefully the replanting will consist of native species like alders, birches and oak. These would really add to the wildlife value of the Pollagh.
Our first bird is a robin and we often forget that this common garden resident started life as a woodland bird. A yew tree is growing near the path and this must have been planted by a bird. Given time, on a wildlife scale, birds and animals will create a diverse forest. Already there are a few beech, holly and hawthorn trees providing shelter and food for nature. Ivy flowers provide bees with a chemical that helps induce sleep, another important use for this amazing plant.
I am disappointed to see that the part of the hedge where the spindle trees grew has been cut down to the ground. This is a scarce tree in Tipperary and produces bright pink fruit that contain orange berries. The nearby hedge has also been topped but thankfully the tall oak tree has been left alone. On a few fallen branches from the oak we find colourful lichens.
We walk on and see a hooded crow flying low over the fields. It is unusual to see one on its own and his mates must be nearby. Along the base of the hedge, life is slowly stirring. Daises are in flower and the leaves of cow parsley are already a few inches from winter. Bramble has conquered a large section but its advance has been curtailed by a field gate.
The small stream is flooded and the swelling buds of the willow dip into the water. We spot a very well camouflaged horse whose coat is the same colour as the faded rushes.
The grassy line down the middle of the road is full of hardy and trample-proof broad and narrow leaved plantain. Another Robin bursts into song and the kids find some slime fungus in the grass. It looks like jelly but not the flavour you would want to eat.
At the end of a December rainbow we find a pot of gold. The gold in question is a single yellow flower of the dandelion. After a winter without flowers it is better than any treasure. The long purple catkins hang from the alder tree, and this species is perfectly suited to growing in wet ground.
There are plenty of muddy puddles and despite their advancing years my two can’t resist and soon their shoes and clothes are covered in mud.
Birds too have responded to the mild weather and are singing. A song thrush’s far-carrying song hangs over the walk and we also hear the powerful song of a wren. As we reach the crossing point the scent of baled silage perfumes the air.
The stony ground has been colonised by a few colourful wildflowers. Yellow flowers of groundsel and the pink flowers of red dead nettle brighten up the edge of the path. A timber fence post is covered in green lichens creating a life painting that only nature could fashion.
The kids run ahead and pause at our traditional picnic spot. While they have a quick snack I take in the view of the hills. The Clare hills dominate over the River Shannon and I can make out the distinctive shape of Keeper Hill. A woman passes by, being walked by two strong dogs and a robin starts to sing at the three intruders.
Big sow thistles are growing along the path and it is so disheartening to see how the once diverse wildflower meadows have been drained. In the place of 40 species of flowers and grasses there is now quick growing conifers, and the loss for nature and people incalculable
We pass through the style and take the track for the car. Two male blackbirds are foraging by the edge of the path and they fly away with scolding calls. The Gorse shrub has bright yellow flowers but they do not smell of coconuts till high summer.
Another hedge has been removed and I am concerned for the future of this walk. A wren gives an alarm call as we reach the car. Despite the losses, the Pollagh trail still remains one of the most interesting places to walk in Tipperary.
North Tipperary Development Company Bat Identification and Surveying Training Report with Birdhill Tidy Towns.
7th August 2019
Introduction. The training was held in the Community Park in Birdhill village. This park has been developed with people and wildlife in mind. There is a wide variety of trees, shrubs and flowers. These attract insects that in turn are eaten by bats.
Weather. The weather was dry, with no wind and the temperatures were perfect for flying insects and bats.
Training started in the park with an introduction to the different species of bat found in Ireland. We discussed the lifestyle of each species, its preferred habitat and their emergence times. We also listened to the different bat calls, when identifying bats, it is very important to have your ear tuned in to the different range of calls that bats make. This was followed by questions.
We then demonstrated how to use the bat detectors. These devices convert the inaudible echolocation calls of the bats, into sounds that we can hear, and with a little practice use to identify the different species of bats.
One woman on the talk, feared bats and it was great to have her on the walk. She remembers as a child waking up and finding a bat in the bed beside her. Since then she has been frightened of bats. I explained that they don’t bite and are no danger to humans.
Just before dusk we headed off with the bat detectors.
Bat species recorded and location.
First, we explored the community park. We heard one common pipistrelle and he commuting to his feeding grounds.
Woodland walk. This area was very active, and we heard several Common pipistrelles, feeding above clearings in the trees.
Train station. Medium strength lights and a tall tree line make this the ideal feeding grounds for Leisers bats. We could see dozens of insects, and moths flying around the lights, and hear the loud calls, of the feeding bats.
Potential Bat roosts. The old stone railway bridge might be a bat roost. Leisers bats often roost in-between old stone structures.
Road to Pollagh trail. This sheltered road, bordered by a line of trees, and mature gardens had common pipistrelle bats feeding.
Enhancing habitat for bats. Bats can eat up to 3500 insects each night and a good diversity of trees, shrubs and flowers that attract insects will encourage bats to come into the garden.
Flowers that release their scent at dusk will attract flies and moths and these will be eaten by bats. Honeysuckle could be grown up along a trellis and pots can be filled with night scented stock and tobacco flowers.
Other good flowers are French marigold, thyme, raspberry and pale coloured blooms.
Native broadleaf trees and shrubs like willow, blackthorn and hawthorn attract lots of insects. Native hedgerows are used by bats to navigate between roosting and feeding grounds. They also provide shelter and attract lots of insects. Bats to not like to travel across large gaps.
Leaving a wild edge. We have far too much manicured lawns in our gardens, parks and schools. Short grass is a virtual desert for insects. Try leaving part of the grass uncut and this will encourage wildflowers that will attract insects and provide food for bats.
When weeding try and avoid using lots of pesticides and herbicides as they kill a lot of the bat’s natural food. Instead use mulches and hoes to keep plants and borders weed free.
Bat boxes. Daytime roosting locations can be scarce for bats as old trees with natural holes are very rare in Tipperary. The females will use attics of house for their maternity roosts and move out in the autumn for winter quarters.
Bat boxes need to be placed at least four meters off the ground. When bats emerge, they drop down towards the ground and this makes them vulnerable to predators like cats. Keeping cats in an hour before and after dusk/dawn also helps protect bats. Avoid placing bat box in midday sun and place three boxes together around a tree or wall. Bats like to have no branches around the box when they are flying in and out.
Ponds. Water is a brilliant source of insects and anyone who has surveyed a waterbody at night can testify to this. Even a small pond in a garden or community green space will become a habitat for feeding bats.
Effect of lighting. Strong lights drive some species of bat away and make them more vulnerable to predators.
Birds of the Pollaghs